Iain Gray: Skewed tale of devolution

Alex Salmond. Picture: Neil Hanna
Alex Salmond. Picture: Neil Hanna
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IN last week’s lecture arguing for a post-referendum National Convention, Douglas Alexander returned to a theme he loves – the importance of stories in understanding our present and shaping our future.

He cited a warning from Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie about “the danger of a single story”, saying: “If we only hear a single story about another person – or nation – we risk a critical misunderstanding.”

The recent story of our nation is the story of devolution, and we devolutionists who oppose separatism fail to tell that story at our peril. The SNP and many commentators are writing an entirely negative story of devolution, its limitations, its rigidity, its inherent conservatism and its failure. This is a perfect example of what Alexander describes (after French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) as an elite holding on to power by shaping the discourse, myths, metaphors and stories of a society. It must be challenged.

The story of devolution is a story of remarkable successes, from its very first Act. In 1999, Scotland’s incapacity laws were not just old fashioned; they were archaic, some going back centuries. Charities told of people whose partners were struck down by accident or disease and then found their household bank account frozen because legislation predated joint bank accounts. Doctors were daily operating outside the letter of a law that predated Burke and Hare never mind modern surgery.

Westminster had never had time to fix this, but the new Scottish Parliament did, and the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 was hailed as the most modern incapacity legislation in Europe. It was exactly this ability to pursue Scottish priorities that the parliament was designed for, and this legislation will be used by almost every family in Scotland at one time or another.

When it came to homelessness, the Scottish Parliament went one better. The Homelessness (Scotland) Act 2003 was considered the most progressive homelessness legislation in the world. Its final provisions are coming into force right now across Scotland.

Then there was the abolition of feudal tenure, the right to roam, and land reform, which abolished one thousand years of feudalism, opened our land to our people for the first time and allowed communities, such as Eigg and Knoydart, to take possession of the land on which they lived and worked.

That is a story of globally cutting-edge and historically significant achievement, neither limited nor conservative, and we cannot tell it often enough these days.

Some may be surprised to hear that devolution is also a story of constantly changing parliamentary powers. Holyrood has seen many additional powers devolved to it throughout its short life. The biggest example was the devolution of rail infrastructure in 2006. Not only did this give Holyrood the power to build new railways, it came with all the relevant capital funding every year, currently more than £300 million. The secretary of State responsible for this was one Alistair Darling.

First Minister Alex Salmond’s marine energy ambitions also depend on new energy powers devolved to Holyrood long after 1999 because technology had overtaken the initial settlement.

In fact, there is hardly a day in parliament that MSPs do not stretch the margins of the parliament’s powers via legislative consent motions (LCMs). These are mechanisms that were designed to facilitate rare readjustments to devolved powers. In reality, they are now used almost daily without comment. Meanwhile, the SNP is loudly demanding the devolution of the welfare system, yet the social fund, community care grants and council tax benefit are being quietly devolved right now. Five years ago, the SNP railed against the iniquitous reservation of council tax benefit to Westminster. Now it is devolved, with little fuss or fanfare.

Then there is the Calman chapter in the devolution story. The Calman Commission laid out plans for and increase in devolved powers. The minority SNP Scottish Government opposed it, but Holyrood went ahead and demanded new powers anyway. These were then delivered by a UK parliament across two different governments. The new powers are significant and are underpinned by rigorous consultation and research. They are hardly the mark of a rigid settlement in an inflexible Union.

Perhaps the ultimate symbol of devolution’s flexibility is the Edinburgh Agreement. Holyrood has been given the power to hold a referendum to abolish itself in favour of independence. Compare that with Catalonia where a pro-referendum parliamentary majority has simply been told by Spain that it does not have the legal power to proceed.

This is the true meaning of the Rhodri Morgan quote “devolution is a process not an event”. Devolution has proved itself a pragmatic constitutional arrangement whereby powers follow purpose and the result is a story of successful, significant and radical legislative change.

Like many good stories, this one has its paradoxes. The 
SNP has always opposed new powers for Scotland. It refused to sign the claim of right, walked out of the constitutional convention and tried to kill the Calman changes at birth. In power at Holyrood, it has simultaneously tried to demonstrate that self-government is the ideal, while showing that devolution is a worthless experiment doomed to failure.

Perhaps that is why so few of the great achievements of Holyrood are from the Salmond era. The SNP’s attempts to address the shame of sectarianism impressed no one and its alcohol minimum pricing bill is mired in European competition law that the government refused to acknowledge as a problem. Bold climate change legislation has petered out in timid failure to meet targets. The SNP is stuck in a parliament it never believed in.

Meanwhile, Labour, having delivered devolution, struggled with its own paradox. It had to prove that the UK nations are better together by demonstrating how aggressively willing Labour was to be different. Sometimes different wings of the Labour movement have found themselves on different sides of that paradox, leaving the electorate unconvinced of Labour’s commitment to devolution. In the party’s eagerness to show how open it is to strengthening devolution, it forgets to 
trumpet how powerful it is already.

In his lecture, Alexander argues that the SNP is trying to sell the people of Scotland a story that does not reflect their experience, or how they feel. Poll after poll shows that Scots believe in a strong devolved Scottish parliament and trust the one they have. That is why I believe that our story of the success of devolution, and its growing power to match its purpose is one that Scots will find authentic if we choose to tell it confidently enough. It 
also contains within it the guarantee that after a “no” vote, devolution will continue to evolve, because it always has.

While the SNP narrative is “independence is inevitable” is based on nothing, the story that “devolution works” is based on our real shared experience. We should tell it unashamedly because it is true.

Then we can tell a new powerful tale of Scotland’s future that will gather all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole.

• Iain Gray is Labour MSP for East Lothian